Sunday, October 31, 2004

We Are All Becoming Data Processors

I remember reading the book The Hungry Ocean and thinking about the fact that a good Swordfish boat captain was no longer determined by how well you could read the weather, the birds, the water and instead was determined by how well you could parse the data: weather feeds, water temperatures, sonar output. The intrinsic feel that humans get was now being replaced by being able to intelligently interpret massive amounts of data.

As you look around you see more and more jobs where data interpretation is replacing other skills. There was the 60 Minutes show interviewing NFL head coaches.

NFL teams have more software engineers today than water boys. The Patriots, the Panthers -- every team spends millions on special video player-super-computers that allow every coach to scout every opponent’s every move.

Fox showed Stahl a game the Green Bay Packers played last year. “I could actually pick every game they’ve played and we can store up to three years,” says Fox.

Who knew that Vince Lombardi and his film projector would turn into this? The technology lets you go back, slow-motion, even sort by player. “If I’m evaluating a wide receiver, say his number is 85, I can push that, load it in and basically pull out all the plays he was involved in,” says Fox.

Fox spends endless hours at this. And Belichick comes to work at 5 a.m. to fire up his computer, and analyze his opponents.
And then there was this article in Wired about fighting wild fires. No longer is successful firefighting determined by how well trained your fire fighters are and the gear they have. Instead it is up to the commander using good fire simulation software to determine where the fire will go and distribute your troops accordingly. The data crunching and simulations are replacing the skills of old.
Predicting the path of wildfires has long been a notoriously difficult task because they continually react to an infinite mix of ever-changing conditions. Wind speed, varying terrain, and differing vegetation, for instance, can all influence how fast and furiously a fire burns. Big gusts can drive flames 200 feet into the air and fan fires that wipe out thousands of acres of timber within minutes. Temperatures can reach 2,000 degrees, roughly that of molten lava. The heat creates violent updrafts that loft thousands of golf ball-sized embers, called firebrands, hundreds of feet high, raining a fiery hell onto ground crews and igniting dozens of new fires. The conventional strategy for containing these kinds of big blazes - besides praying for rain - has been brute force. Ground crews, called hotshots, dig trenches and clear vegetation to create "fuel breaks" in the path of approaching flames. Firefighters also rely on tanker planes that drop thousands of gallons of water and chemical retardant. Yet the intense heat and speed of a big blaze can overwhelm almost any attempt to stop it.

Hotshots and tanker planes still play a vital role in battling wildfires, but the overall firefighting strategy - the where, when, and how many - is increasingly being left to computers. Consider a simulation program called Farsite (short for Fire Area Simulator). Created by Mark Finney, a researcher at the US Department of Agriculture's Fire Sciences Lab in Missoula, Montana, Farsite can crunch more than a dozen variables - including wind, air temperature, humidity, altitude, terrain, and vegetation - and in a few minutes spit out 3-D animations that chart the most probable path of a wildfire.

Like the other commanders, Bunnell assumed the Beta-Doris fire would move northwest - away from Martin City. That's because the reservoir placed a big, wet barrier between the fire's northeast perimeter and the town. But he called Finney for a second opinion.

Finney, too, thought the reservoir would stop the flames. Yet when he crunched the data, Farsite predicted a surprisingly different scenario: Beta-Doris would catapult firebrands half a mile across the reservoir and ignite spot fires along the opposite shore. If unchecked, these could overrun Martin City and make a beeline toward Glacier.

There must be an error, thought Finney. Just to be sure, he ran the simulations twice more. The results were the same.

Bunnell was apprehensive about pulling crews from the existing fire and sending them across the reservoir to wait for an unlikely result predicted by a computer program. If he bet wrong, there would be hell to pay - Beta-Doris would likely take out the power station. He took a deep breath, and put his faith in Farsite: "I go to area command and make my play," he says. "I'm old, half bald, people don't remember me very well. And they're wondering, Who is this guy?"

The fire commanders eventually relented and agreed to send four fire trucks and six 20-member crews armed with shovels and Pulaskis to the reservoir's eastern shore. Meanwhile, Finney had uploaded Farsite's Beta-Doris model to a server that wildfire managers could access from the command center. They sent up an aircraft with infrared mapping capabilities that could see through the fire's smoky cloak and track its movement. To everyone's amazement, at 6 pm the next day a sudden wind squall lobbed firebrands across the reservoir. Thanks to Finney and Farsite, crews on the other side were already in position. As spot fires flared up, teams methodically attacked each one, snuffing them out before any torched more than a few acres.

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